With three other children, working mother Amy Strand wasn’t a novice when it came to nursing her fourth, including traveling with a breast pump. But when she flew home to Maui on Wednesday from a business trip to the neighboring island of Kauai, she was taken aback when a TSA security agent told her she would not be allowed to board a plane with empty bottles in her breast pump. Full bottles, yes, but not empty ones.
Strand, an elementary school vice principal, was flummoxed. The bottles are key, of course, to using the pump while at work, and parts can’t be bought off the shelf at any given variety store. Additionally, she’d flown out for her business trip Feb. 27 with the same pump with no problem.
“He said I couldn’t go through because there was no milk in the bottles,” Strand told TODAY.com. “But I was not going to leave a part of the breast pump behind — it cost over $200. He told me (however) that my option was to leave it behind or to put milk into it.”
When she asked where she could pump, the TSA officer took her to a restroom, where the only outlet to plug the pump into was by the sinks.
“There was a TSA agent in there using the restroom and I asked her if there was a private place to pump, and she said no,” Strand said. “I had to stand at the sink in my heels and dress pumping as travelers came and went. I was humiliated and fighting back tears. It confuses me why an ice pack and breast pump were a threat to national security.”
On Monday, Lorie Dankers, spokeswoman for the TSA’s Northwest Region, issued a written statement, saying:
“Our officer mistakenly told her that she could only bring the (pump) pack if it was medically necessary, (and) she informed him that she planned to use it later for the storage of breast milk. The passenger was escorted from the checkpoint and later returned with previously empty containers filled with breast milk. She was screened and allowed to proceed with all of her carry-on items. The passenger has contacted us with her concerns and we accept responsibility for the apparent misunderstanding and any inconvenience or embarrassment this incident may have caused her.”
On its website, TSA has a page titled “Important Information on Traveling with Formula, Breast Milk and Juice,” but there is no specific mention of breast pumps, Dankers says, because they are not prohibited items.
Diana West, a certified lactation consultation and spokeswoman for La Leche League International, a major education, advocacy and support organization for breast-feeding, said she’d never heard of such an incident previously.
“Formula-feeding mothers travel with empty bottles all the time,” West pointed out. “It’s crazy.”
Certainly, TSA agents need to be trained on the issue, she said: “We believe strongly that women should be able to work and travel and meet the needs of their babies.”
Strand said she received a call from a top TSA administrator for Hawaii apologizing for the incident, which she said she appreciated. But she feels more is needed, including additional training for TSA agents.
“What’s upsetting and sad is it’s an example where a TSA agent didn’t know their own policies,” she said. “This is my fourth baby, so breast-feeding concerns aren’t new to me. I can’t imagine how humiliated a young mom breast-feeding for the first time might feel. I’m 38 years old and can stand up for myself. Nothing can take the humiliation away, but if this story prevents another nursing mom from the same humiliation, it’s worth talking about.”